World of the Sages: Torah in tempest

How can our sages claim that Torah studied in anguish will last longer?

torah reading 88 (photo credit: )
torah reading 88
(photo credit: )
How difficult should it be to study Torah? The Bible describes the Torah as a fine gift that the Almighty has granted us: For I have given you good doctrine, forsake not my Torah" (Proverbs 4:2). As with any present we may have to unwrap it, take it out of its packaging, but surely it should not be too grueling to access. Alas, our sages tell us that the Almighty granted us three worthy gifts, and each of them was given through suffering: Torah, the Land of Israel and the world to come (B. Brachot 5a). A scriptural proof is cited for each item; regarding the challenges in studying Torah it says: Fortunate is the man whom You afflict, O God, and from Your Torah You teach him (Psalms 94:12) - affliction appears in the verse as the companion of Torah study. Moreover, the Mishna declares (M. Avot 6:4): "This is the path of Torah: Eat bread with salt, drink water in small measure and sleep on the ground, and live a life of difficulty while you toil in Torah." Again Torah study is coupled with hardship, this time in the form of abstinence from physical pleasures. At least, the Mishna continues describing the reward for such a regimen: "If you do thus, you are fortunate and it will be good for you: You are fortunate in this world and it will be good for you in the world to come." Further in the Mishna an extensive list of 48 characteristics, circumstances and methods for acquiring Torah is offered (M. Avot 6:6). In this detailed inventory we find items such as: moderating interaction with the world, minimum pleasure, minimum sleep, minimum chatter, minimum laughter and - as we might now expect - Torah can be acquired by long suffering and by accepting hardship. Why must Torah be acquired in adversity? One commentator explains the connection between such a demanding lifestyle and Torah achievement: If we begin to enjoy the pleasures of this world, this may turn into excess and then our Torah study will be neglected. We therefore must limit our worldly enjoyment lest Torah be forsaken (Maharsha, 16th-17th centuries, Poland). Other sources suggest that a life of Torah study in adversity was divinely decreed at Sinai. When Moses descended the mountain bearing the two tablets he saw the tragedy before his eyes: the Jewish people worshipping the Golden Calf. He looked down at the holy tablets in his hands and saw the letters flying up and away, leaving the slabs in his hand. It was then that Moses broke the tablets and stood there speechless. At that moment it was decreed that Torah would be studied out of hardship and while we were enslaved and wandering from place to place, and being driven to madness and during privation, and when there was no food to put on the table (TDE Rabba 21; TDE Zuta 4). Not only is suffering described as a prerequisite for Torah acquisition, but it appears to be a tonic for the long-term recollection of material studied. The Talmud tells us that if a person accepts the harsh circumstances that he is forced to endure, the Torah studied under such conditions will not be forgotten (B. Brachot 5a). In a similar vein, our sages expound the verse: And I was great, and added more than all who were before me in Jerusalem; also [af] my wisdom remained with me" (Ecclesiastes 2:9). The Hebrew word for "also" - af - bears another meaning, anger or wrath. The Midrash explains: Torah wisdom that I studied during a time of af - that is while subject to the Almighty's wrath - remained with me (Yalkut Shimoni, Kohelet 1068). In this rendition there is no prerequisite of accepting the suffering inflicted; any Torah studied under hardship is guaranteed to remain. Perhaps the pursuit of Torah is not an easy path; perhaps it indeed demands dedication and sacrifice. But how can our sages claim that Torah studied in anguish will last longer? Naturally, when we are bothered by a slew of hardships, we are hardly able to focus fully on Torah studies. Torah studied in difficult circumstances may be worth more, it may reflect fidelity and commitment, it certainly is laudable, but is it so likely that such Torah will be a mainstay of our studies for years to come? The Munkatcher rebbe, Rabbi Haim Elazar Shapiro (1871-1937), asked this very question and he offered two explanations for why Torah studied in anguish may last longer. First he noted the magical properties of Torah. Indeed, studying anything but Torah would succeed only if all tormenting distractions would abate. Not so Torah, whose supernatural properties are above nature and work contrary to what we would expect: Torah studied under affliction will not readily be forgotten. This is perhaps the divine reward for the dedication shown by studying Torah in adverse conditions and it reflects the uniqueness of our Tradition. The second explanation of the Munkatcher rebbe is fascinating for it relies not on the supernatural, but seeks to offer an approach that squares with our life experience: As the tumultuous tempest of life rages around us, Torah study may provide a sanctuary to which we can retreat. Though the Munkatcher rebbe doesn't use the modern term, he seemed to be suggesting that learning Torah in difficult circumstances can be a form of occupational therapy. Learning Torah can be a meaningful occupation that may assist in grappling with adversity and achieving a more balanced and healthy lifestyle. Turning to Torah can actually assist us in setting aside the worries of the world, albeit momentarily, giving us some respite from the challenges we face. When we sit down and open the tomes of our tradition we enter another world; the Torah studied in that realm is not subject to the difficulties that encroach on the peaceful existence we so crave. The Torah we study in this safe space cannot be eroded by the vicissitudes of life. That Torah will be with us forever. The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.